The 'Campaign for the Western Desert', sometimes known as the 'Desert War', was fought in the deserts of Egypt and Libya and was the main strategic undertaking in the North African theatre (11 June 1940/4 February 1943).
Military operations began in June 1940 after the Italian declaration of war and an early lull was followed the Italian invasion of Egypt from Libya in September. 'Compass' was a five-day raid by the British in December 1940, and was so successful that it led to the destruction of the Italian 10a Armata in the following two months. Benito Mussolini sought help from Adolf Hitler, who sent a small German force to Tripoli under Führerweisung Nr 22 of 11 January. Under the command of Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel, this Deutsches Afrika Korps was formally under Italian command, as Italy was the main Axis power in the Mediterranean and North Africa.
In the spring of 1941, Rommel led 'Sonnenblume', which pushed the Allies back to Egypt except for the siege of Tobruk. At the end of 1941, Axis forces were defeated in 'Crusader' and retired again to El Agheila. Early in 1942 Axis forces drove the Allies back again, then captured Tobruk after the 'Battle of Gazala', but failed to destroy their opponents. The Axis forces invaded Egypt and those of the Allies retreated to El Alamein, where the 8th Army fought two defensive battles, then defeated the Axis forces in the '2nd Battle of El Alamein' in October 1942. After this, the 8th Army drove Axis forces back through Libya into Tunisia in French North-West Africa, which was invaded from the west by the Allied 1st Army in 'Torch'. In the Tunisian campaign the remaining Axis forces surrendered to the combined Allied forces in May 1943.
The British Western Desert Force (renamed Cyrcom and later the 8th Army) had been reduced in early 1941 to send formations and units to Greece, rather than complete the conquest of Libya, just as German troops and Italian reinforcements arrived. British commonwealth and empire troops released by the end of the 'Campaign for East Africa' were sent to Egypt, and by the summer the surviving commonwealth troops had returned from Greece, Crete and Syria. From the end of 1941, increasing amounts of equipment and personnel, including US supplies and tanks, started to reach the 8th Army. The Axis never overcame the supply constraints limiting the size of their land and air forces in North Africa and the desert war became a sideshow for Germany, when the expected quick conclusion of the 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR was not achieved.
Cyrenaica, which is the eastern portion of Libya, had been an Italian colony since the Italo-Turkish War of 1911/12. With Tunisia, part of French North Africa, to the west, and British-dominated Egypt to the east, the Italians prepared to defend both fronts through a North African supreme headquarters, under the command of the governor-general of Italian Libya, Mareschiallo dell’Aria Italo Balbo. This supreme Hhadquarters had the Generale d’Armata Italo Garobaldi’s 5a Armata and Generale d’Armata Mario Berti’s 10a Armata), which in the middle of 1940 had nine metropolitan divisions of about 13,000 men each, three Milizia Volontaria per la Sicurezza Nazionale (Blackshirt) divisions and two Libyan divisions, each with an establishment of about 8,000 men. The divisions of the Italian army had each been reorganised in the late 1930s from three regiments to two; reservists were recalled in 1939, along with the usual call-up of conscripts.
Morale was considered high and the army had recent operational experience. The Italian navy had prospered under the Fascist regime, which had paid for fast, well-built and well-armed ships as well as a large submarine fleet, but it lacked experience and training. The air force had been ready for war in 1936 but by 1939 had stagnated, and the British considered it incapable of maintaining a high rate of operations. The 5a Armata of eight divisions was based in Tripolitania, the western half of Libya, opposite Tunisia, and the 10a Armata of six infantry divisions, held Cyrenaica in the east. When war was declared, the 10a Armata sent the 1a Divisione libica to the Egyptian frontier between Giarabub and Sidi Omar, and the XXI Corpo d’Armata between Sidi Omar and the coast of the Mediterranean Sea at Bardia and Tobruk. The XXII Corpo d’Armata was moved to the south-west of Tobruk to act as a counter-offensive force.
The British had based forces in Egypt since 1882 but these had been greatly reduced by the terms of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936. The small British and commonwealth force garrisoned the Suez Canal and the Red Sea route. The canal was vital to British communications with its Far Eastern and Indian Ocean territories as well as Australia and New Zealand. In the middle of 1939, General Sir Archibald Wavell was appointed general officer commanding-in-chief of the new Middle East Command, which was responsible for the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern theatres. Until the Franco-Axis armistice of June 1940, French divisions in Tunisia faced the Italian 5a Armata on Libya’s western border. Within Libya, the Italian army had about 215,000 men, and in Egypt the British had about 36,000 troops and another 27,500 men training in Palestine.
British forces included the Mobile Division (Egypt) under Major General P. C. S. Hobart, one of only two British armoured training formations. In the middle of 1939 it was renamed as the Armoured Division (Egypt), and on 16 February 1940 became the 7th Armoured Division. The Egyptian/Libyan border was defended by the Egyptian Frontier Force and in June 1940, the headquarters of the 6th Division under Major General Richard O’Connor took command in the Western Desert, with instructions to drive back the Italians from their frontier posts and dominate the hinterland if war began. The 7th Armoured Division, less the 7th Armoured Brigade, assembled at Mersa Matruh and sent the 7th Support Group toward the frontier as a covering force, where the RAF also moved most of its bombers. Malta was also reinforced.
The headquarters of the 6th Division, which lacked units which were complete and fully trained, was renamed the Western Desert Force on 17 June. In Tunisia, the French had eight divisions, capable only of limited operations, and in Syria, three poorly armed and trained divisions, about 40,000 troops and border guards, on occupation duties against the civilian population. Italian land and air forces in Libya greatly outnumbered those of the British in Egypt but suffered from increasingly poor morale and were handicapped by inferior equipment. In Italian East Africa, there were another 130,000 Italian and African troops with 400 pieces of artillery, 200 light tanks and 20,000 trucks. Italy declared war on 11 June 1940.
The war was fought primarily in the area known as the Western Desert, which is about 240 miles (390 km) wide, from Mersa Matruh in Egypt to Gazala on the Libyan coast, along the Litoranea Balbo (Via Balbia), the only paved road. The Sand Sea, 150 miles (240 km) inland, marked the southern limit of the desert at its widest points at Giarabub and Siwa. In British terminology, the term 'Western Desert' was applied to the desert of Egypt to the west of the Nile river, but came to describe the whole area of conflict, including eastern Cyrenaica in Libya. From the coast, a raised, flat plain of stony desert extends inland about 150 m (500 ft) above sea level and runs south for some 120 to 190 miles (200 to 300 km) from the coast to the edge of the Sand Sea. The region is rife with scorpions, vipers and flies, and was inhabited by small numbers of Bedouin nomads. Bedouin tracks linked wells and the more easily traversed ground; navigation was by sun, star, compass and 'desert sense', which is an intuitive perception of the environment resulting largely from experience. When Italian troops advanced into Egypt in September 1940, the Ragruppamento 'Maletti' became after departing Sidi Omar, disappeared and had to be found by aircraft. In spring and summer the days are miserably hot and the nights very cold. The sirocco (gibleh or ghibli), a hot desert wind, blows clouds of fine sand, which reduce visibility to a few yards and coat eyes, lungs, machinery, food and equipment; motor vehicles and aircraft need special oil filters and the barren terrain means that supplies for military operations have to be transported from outside. Designed for service in more temperate climes, German engines tended to overheat and the life of their tank engines fell from 1,400 to 1,600 miles (2300 to 2600 km) to as little as 300 to 900 miles (480 to 1450 km), and this was problem exacerbated by the lack of standardised spare parts for the German and Italian motor types.
The Italian forces in Libya had of necessity to be supplied by sea, the relevant ships and convoys going about 600 miles (970 km) west about Sicily, then approaching the coast of Tunisia before proceeding eastward to Tripoli, in order to avoid interference from the British aircraft, warships and submarines based at Malta. In Africa, supplies had to be hauled great distances by road or, in small consignments, by coasting ships. The distance from Tripoli to Benghazi was about 650 miles (1050 km) and to El Alamein 1,400 miles (2300 km). One-third of the Italian merchant marine comprised ships berthed in British-controlled ports, and was therefore interned after Italy had declared war. By September 1942 half of the remainder had been sunk, although much was replaced by new shipbuilding, salvage and transfers of German ships. From June 1940 to May 1943, 16% of supply shipments were sunk.
Tobruk was pressed into use during June 1942, but Allied bombing and its long approach route led this effort to be abandoned in August. The Germans assumed that the maximum distance a motorised army could operate from its base was 200 miles (320 km), but on average about one-third of Axis trucks was unserviceable and between 35 and 40% of the fuel deliveries were consumed transporting the remainder to the front. Fuel oil shortages in Italy, the small size of the ports in Libya and the need to meet civilian demand, required the inefficient despatch of large numbers of small convoys. The Oberkommando des Heeres concluded that German forces in Libya could not be supplied for a decisive offensive unless Italian forces were withdrawn to Italy, which was politically impossible.
Its geographical position made it possible for Italy to close the Mediterranean if war came, and thus force Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham’s Mediterranean Fleet, based in Egypt, to rely on the Suez Canal for the delivery of its supplies after being carried right round Africa’s western, southern and eastern coasts. In 1939, Wavell began to plan a base in the Middle East to support about 15 divisions (300,000 men), six of them in Egypt, three in Palestine and the rest farther afield. Many of the supplies needed by the British were imported from the colonies and the rest obtained locally by stimulating the production of substitutes. The plan for a garrison of nine divisions in Egypt and Palestine had been revised to 14 divisions by June 1941 and then to 23 by March 1942. Once the Italians declared war in 1940 and until 1943, merchant ships travelled to the east from the UK round the Cape of Good Hope, which made Egypt as distant as Australia and New Zealand. The Middle East Supply Centre (MESC) operated in Egypt, Palestine and Syria to co-ordinate imports and create local substitutes for civilian rations and promote agricultural efficiencies. By March 1943 the MESC had replaced about 100 'Liberty' ship deliveries' worth of imports with increased local production of potatoes, cooking oil, dairy products and fish, while cattle drives from Sudan obviated the need for refrigerated shipping.
In 1940, the British military forces had a base at the terminus of the Egyptian state railway, road and the port of Mersa Matruh, 200 miles (320 km) to the west of Alexandria. Construction began on a water pipeline along the railway and the British surveyed sources of water. Wells were dug, but most of these filled with salt water; in 1939 the primary fresh water sources were the Roman aqueducts at Mersa Matruh and Maaten Baggush. Water-boats from Alexandria and a distillation plant at Mersa Matruh increased supply but strict rationing had to be enforced, and much water had to be moved overland to outlying areas. Not enough vehicles were available in 1939, and lorries were diverted to provide the Armoured Division with a better rear link. Only desert-worthy vehicles could be risked across country, which left tanks unable to move far from Mersa Matruh, which is 120 miles (190 km) to the east of the Libyan border. From the border there was no water at Sollum or for another 50 miles (80 km) to the east of Sollum to Sidi Barrani, along a very poor road. Any invader faced the prospect of moving through a waterless and trackless desert to reach the main British force. In September 1940, the New Zealand Railway Battalion and Indian labourers began work on a coastal railway, which had reached Sidi Barrani by October 1941 and Tobruk by December 1942, 400 miles (640 km) to the west of El Alamein, carrying 4,200 tons of water per day.
On the outbreak of war, the British forces were ordered to dominate the frontier and isolate Giarabub. They crossed into Libya that night, exchanged fire with Italian troops at Sidi Omar and discovered that some Italians were unaware that war had been declared. On 14 June, the British captured Fort Capuzzo and Fort Maddalena, taking 220 prisoners. Two days later, the British raided a convoy on the road linking Tobruk and Bardia, killed 21 Italian soldiers and took 88 prisoners, including Generale di Brigata Romolo Lastrucci, the chief engineer of the 10a Armata. In an engagement near the frontier wire at Nezuet Ghirba, a mixed force of British tanks, artillery and motorised infantry defeated an Italian force of 17 light tanks, four guns and 400 infantry.
The British patrolled the frontier area as far to the west as Tobruk, establishing dominance over the 10a Armata. On 5 August, 30 Italian tanks engaged the 8th Hussars in an inconclusive action, and Wavell arrived at the conclusion that vehicle wear made it impractical to continue operations when an Italian offensive loomed: sand wore out equipment quickly, shortening the track life of tanks; the supply of spare parts ran out; and only half the tank strength could be kept operational. A lull fell from August to early September as the naval 'Hats' operation reinforced the Mediterranean Fleet and helped to bring an army convoy of tanks and crews via the Cape of Good Hope. The British claimed to have inflicted 3,500 casualties with a loss of 150 men between 11 June and 9 September. Farther afield, each side established scouting groups, the British as the the Long Range Desert Group and the Italians the several Compagnie Auto-Avio-Sahariane units, which ranged the desert, raided and scouted their opponents' dispositions.
Mussolini initially had no plans for an invasion of Egypt, intending to remain on the defensive in Libya when war came. After the fall of France in 1940, the 5a Armata could send reinforcements to the east, however, and on 7 August Mussolini ordered an invasion, known as 'Operazione 'E'' to occupy Egypt and establish an overland connection between Libya and Italian East Africa. In August a lull fell on the frontier. Most British armoured units had withdrawn to Mersa Matruh, in order to conserve their ability to defend the port. The 7th Support Group took over and established observation posts from Sollum to Fort Maddalena, ready to delay an Italian offensive, and the Hussars reconnoitred deeper into Libya.
The Libyan divisions lacked the transport necessary to operate with the Ragruppamento 'Maletti', which had one medium, two mixed and four light tank battalions on the escarpment and were redeployed to the coast road. On 9 September, the Ragruppamento 'Maletti' became lost en route to Sidi Omar, as noted above, and Graziani cancelled a flanking move and concentrated on the coast road, with five divisions and the Ragruppamento 'Maletti'; the 4a CCNN Divisione '3 Gennaio' and 64a Divisione fanteria 'Catanzaro' remained in reserve at Tobruk. The 5th Squadra, a mixed air formation of about 300 serviceable aircraft, airfield equipment and transport, was readied to support the advance and occupy airfields.
The Italian invasion of Egypt of 13/18 September began as a limited tactical operation toward Mersa Matruh, rather the strategic objectives that formed the stuff of dreams in Rome, as a result of the chronic lack of transport, fuel and wireless equipment, even with resupply from the 5a Armata. Musiad was subjected to a 'spectacular' artillery bombardment at dawn, then occupied. The 1a Divisione libica took Sollum and its airfield. By the evening of the first day, the 2a Divisione libica, 63a Divisione fanteria 'Cirene', the Ragruppamento 'Maletti' from Musaid and the 62a Divisione fanteria 'Marmarica' from Sidi Omar had pushed past British harassing parties and converged on the Halfaya Pass.
The British withdrew past Buq Buq on 14 September and continued to harass the Italian advance, and fell back to Alam Hamid on the the next day and to Alam el Dab on 16 September. An Italian force of 50 tanks attempted a flanking move, so the British rearguard retired to the east of Sidi Barrani, which was occupied by the 1a CCNN Divisione '23 Marzo', and Graziani halted the advance. The British resumed observation and the 7th Armoured Division prepared to challenge an attack on Mersa Matruh. Despite the prodding of Mussolini, the Italians dug in around Sidi Barrani and Sofafi, about 80 miles (130 km) to the west of the British defences at Mersa Matruh, repairing roads demolished by the British, cleaning wells and beginning work on a water pipeline from the border, accumulating supplies for the resumption of the advance in the middle of December. Egypt broke off diplomatic relations with the Axis and Italian aircraft bombed Cairo on 19 October.
British naval and air operations to harass the Italian army continued and caused damage which prisoners reported had lowered morale. Armoured car patrols dominated no man’s land, but a lack of landing grounds reduced the effectiveness of the RAF, and Malta was out of range. 'Compass', a British counter-offensive to hit an Italian advance on Mersa Matruh, was schemed for the destruction of the Italian forces and most of the Western Desert Force was moved up to the port. An additional armoured car company joined reconnaissance operations far behind the front line. The Western Desert Force had been reinforced with a new tank regiment fielding the Matilda II infantry tank. Rather than wait for the Italians, the British began after about a month to prepare a raid of four to five days' duration on the central group of the Italian encampments and then on Sofafi.
In December 1940, the 10a Armata in Egypt had been reinforced with the 1a Divisione libica, 2a Divisione libica and 4a CCNN Divisione in the fortified camps from Sidi Barrani to the Tummars and Maktila. The Ragruppamento 'Maletti' was based at Nibeiwa, the 63a Divisione fanteria 'Cirene' at Rabia and Sofafi, the 62a Divisione fanteria 'Marmarica' on the escarpment between Sofafi and Halfaya Pass, and the 64a Divisione fanteria 'Catanzaro' to the east of Buq Buq, behind the Nibeiwa/Rabia gap, supported by about 500 aircraft of Generale di Corpo d’Armata Felice Porro’s 5a Squadra. The RAF attacked airfields on 7 December and destroyed 39 aircraft on the ground.
'Compass', otherwise known as the 'Battle of Marmarica' and the 'Battle of the Camps', began when Selby Force advanced from Mersa Matruh to isolate Maktila early on 9 December. The Indian 4th Division and the 7th Royal Tank Regiment attacked Nibeiwa at dawn and overran the camp, then moved on Tummar West, which fell in the afternoon. A counterattack from Tummar East was repulsed and the camp was taken on the next day.
A 7th Armoured Division screen to the west prevented the Italian reinforcement of Sidi Barrani and on 10 December, the British cut the coast road and the 7th Armoured Division mopped up around Buq Buq, taking many prisoners. On 11 December, the Italians were defeated at Sidi Barrani; Rabia and Sofafi were abandoned and the 7th Armoured Division pursued along the coast and the escarpment. Late on 14 December, the 11th Hussars cut the Via Balbia between Tobruk and Bardia, captured Sidi Omar on 16 December and forced the Italians to retreat from Sollum and Fort Capuzzo to Bardia, leaving garrisons at Siwa Oasis and Giarabub in the south. From 9 to 11 December, the British took 38,300 prisoners, 237 pieces of artillery, 73 tanks and about 1,000 vehicles for their own loss of just 624 casualties.
Bardia fell between 14 December 1940 and 5 January 1941, and in this the British suffered 456 Australian infantry casualties and lost 17 of 23 tanks, in exchange for 40,000 Italian casualties and prisoners, more than 400 pieces of artillery, 130 tanks and hundreds of trucks. At dawn on 21 January, Australian infantry broke into Tobruk and made a path for 18 Matilda I tanks. The Australians pressed on and captured half of Tobruk’s defences by the fall of night. The Australians took 25,000 prisoners, 208 pieces of artillery and 87 tanks, for a loss of 355 Australian and 45 British troops. The 7th Armoured Division drove 100 miles (160 km) toward Derna and the Generale di Brigata Valentino Babini’s Brigata Corazzata Speciale, with about 300 tanks, at Mechili. The Brigata Corazzata Speciale slipped away, and from 26 to 28 January the British tanks were bogged down in heavy rain; the Italians abandoned Derna on the following day. The 7th Armoured Division sent 'Combe' Force, a flying column, to Beda Fomm and cut off the 10a Armata.
Late in January, the British learned that the Italians were evacuating Cyrenaica along the Via Balbia from Benghazi. The 7th Armoured Division, under the command of Major General Sir Michael O’Moore Creagh, was despatched to intercept the remnants of the 10a Armata by cutting through the desert to the south of the Jebel Akhdar via Msus and Antelat, as the 6th Australian Division pursued the Italians along the coast road to the north of the Jebel Akhdar. The terrain was hard going for the British tanks and Lieutenant Colonel John Combe’s 'Combe' Force, which was a flying column of wheeled vehicles, was sent on ahead. Late on 5 February, 'Combe' Force reached the Via Balbia to the south of Benghazi and established roadblocks near Sidi Saleh, about 20 miles (32 km) to the north of Agedabia and 30 miles (48 km) to the south-west of Antelat. The forward elements of the 10a Armata arrived a mere 30 minutes later and found the Via Balbia blocked. On the following day the Italians attacked in an effort to break through the roadblock, and continued to attack into 7 February. With British reinforcements arriving and the Australians pressing down the road from Benghazi, the residue of the 10a Armata surrendered. in their advance from Benghazi to Agedabia, the British took 25,000 prisoners, captured 107 tanks and 93 pieces of artillery within the 'Compass' operation’s figures of 133,298 men, 420 tanks and 845 pieces of artillery.
On 9 February, Winston Churchill, the British prime minister, ordered the advance to be halted so that men and equipment could be despatched to Greece to aid the Greeks in the Greco-Italian War, since a German attack through Macedonia was thought imminent and in fact materialised as 'Marita'. In any event, the British were unable to continue beyond El Agheila as a result of vehicle breakdowns, exhaustion and the effect of their much lengthened supply line from the base in Egypt. A few thousand men of the 10a Armata escaped the disaster in Cyrenaica but the 5a Armata in Tripolitania had four divisions. The strongholds at Sirte, Tmed Hassan and Buerat were reinforced from Italy, which brought the 10a Armata and 5a Armata up to a strength of about 150,000 men. German reinforcements were sent to Libya to form a Sperrverband (blocking detachment), and these were the first units of Rommel’s Deutsches Afrika Korps.
A week after the Italian surrender at Beda Fomm, the Defence Committee in London ordered Cyrenaica held with the minimum of forces and all spare troops then sent to Greece. In the Western Desert Force (now XIII Corps), the Australian 6th Division was fully equipped and had few losses to replace. The 7th Armoured Division had been operating for eight months, had worn out its mechanical equipment and had been withdrawn to refit. Two regiments of the 2nd Armoured Division with the Western Desert Force were also worn out, which left the division with only four tank regiments. The Australian 6th Division went to Greece in March with an armoured brigade group of the 2nd Armoured Division; the remainder of the division and the new Australian 9th Division, less two brigades and most of its transport, was sent to Greece and was replaced by two under-equipped brigades of the Australian 7th Division. The division took over in Cyrenaica, on the assumption that the Italians could not begin a counter-offensive until May, even with German reinforcements.
Early in 1941, after the big British and commonwealth victory in Cyrenaica, the military position was soon reversed. The best-equipped units of the XIII Corps went to Greece in 'Lustre' for service in the 'Battle of Greece'. Hitler responded to the Italian disaster with Führerweisung Nr 22 of 11 January ordering the 'Sonnenblume' operation, which was the deployment of a new Deutsches Afrika Korps to Libya, as a Sperrverband. The Deutsches Afrika Korps had fresh troops with better tanks, equipment and air support and was led by Rommel, who had enjoyed great success in the 'Battle of France'. The Axis force raided and quickly defeated the British at El Agheila on 24 March and at Mersa el Brega on 31 March, exploited the success, and by 15 April had pushed the British back to the border at Sollum and taken Tobruk under siege. The new commander of XIII Corps (now the headquarters of the Cyrenaica Command), Lieutenant General Philip Neame, O’Connor and Major General Michael Gambier-Parry, commander of the 2nd Armoured Division, were all captured. The headquarters of the Western Desert Force took over under Lieutenant General Noel Beresford-Peirse, who had been recalled from East Africa. Apart from an armoured brigade group of the 2nd Armoured Division, which had been withdrawn for the Greek campaign, the rest of the division had been destroyed. Several Axis attempts to seize Tobruk failed and the front line settled on the Egyptian border.
Tobruk was defended by a force of some 25,000 men, was well stocked with supplies, and linked to Egypt by the Royal Navy. The garrison had armoured cars and captured Italian tanks, which could raid Axis supply convoys as they passed through Tobruk for the frontier, thus preventing the Axis forces from invading Egypt. Rommel attempted to take the port but the Australian 9th Division under Major General Leslie Morshead, resolutely defended the port. The Italians were slow to provide blueprints for the port’s fortifications and several attacks were repulsed. After three weeks Rommel suspended the attacks and resumed the siege. Italian infantry divisions took up positions around the fortress while the bulk of the Deutsches Afrika Korps maintained a mobile presence to the south and east of the port.
'Brevity' was a limited offensive on 15/16 May to attrite the Axis forces and secure positions for a general offensive toward Tobruk. The British attacked with a small tank and infantry force in three columns, Desert, Centre and Coast. The Desert Column, with British cruiser tanks, was to advance inland and destroy tanks found en route to Sidi Aziz; the Centre Column was to capture the top of the Halfaya Pass, Bir Wair and Musaid, then press on to Fort Capuzzo; and the Coast Column was to take Sollum and the foot of Halfaya Pass. Sollum, Halfaya Pass and Fort Capuzzo were captured but then the fort was lost to a counterattack. A German counterattack on 16 May threatened the force at the top of the pass and a retreat was ordered, covered by the Desert Column. The Germans took back Musaid and there began a general British retreat to a line from Sidi Omar to Sidi Suleiman and Sollum, which left only the Halfaya Pass in British hands. 'Brevity' had thus failed to achieve most of its objectives and the Halfaya Pass only briefly. The British suffered 206 casualties, together with five tanks destroyed and 13 damaged. The German casualties were 258 men, three tanks destroyed and several damaged, and the Italian casualties were 395 men, of whom 347 were taken prisoner. On 12 May, the 'Tiger' reinforcement convoy lost one ship and arrived in Alexandria, with 238 tanks to re-equip the 7th Armoured Division and 43 aircraft. On 28 May, planning began for 'Battleaxe'.
During the evening of 26 May, the Kampfgruppe 'von Herff', under the command of Oberst Maximilian von Herff and comprising three Panzer battalions, assembled on the coast at the foot of Halfaya Pass and attacked on the next morning, intending to bluff the British into retreat. The pass was defended by the 3/Coldstream Guards under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Moubray and supporting units, but the bluff became a genuine attack and secured a commanding position, leaving the British in danger of being surrounded. Brigadier William Gott authorised a withdrawal and Moubray extricated the battalion. There were no reinforcements nearby and Gott ordered a withdrawal from the pass, which Axis forces reoccupied. The Italo-German positions on the border were fortified with barbed wire and minefields and covered by 50-mm and 88-mm (3.465-in) anti-tank guns. Behind the new defences the Axis began to accumulate supplies and receive the 15th Panzerdivision, which began to arrive on 20 May.
The 'Battleaxe' operation, between 15 and 27 June, was intended to lift the siege of Tobruk and recapture eastern Cyrenaica. The attack was to be conducted by the 7th Armoured Division and a composite infantry force based on the two brigades of the Indian 4th Division. The infantry were to attack in the area of Bardia, Sollum, Halfaya and Capuzzo, with the tanks guarding the southern flank. For the first time in the war, a large German force fought on the defensive. The Halfaya Pass attack failed, Point 206 was captured and only one of three attacks on Hafid Ridge had any success. At the end of 15 June, 48 British tanks remained operational. On 16 June, a German counterattack forced back the British on the western flank but was repulsed in the centre. However, the British were reduced to 21 operational cruiser tanks and 17 infantry tanks. On 17 June, the British only just evaded encirclement by two Panzer regiments and ended the operation.
Despite British overextension, the Germans failed to turn a defensive success into an annihilating victory. Intelligence had provided details of British moves but the RAF had seen German countermoves and slowed them enough to help the ground forces escape. The British had 969 casualties, 27 cruiser and 64 infantry tanks were knocked out or broken down and not recovered. The RAF lost 36 aircraft. German losses were 678 men and Italian losses are unknown, with in addition 12 tanks and 10 aircraft lost. The British failure led to the sacking of Wavell, the XIII Corps commander, Beresford-Peirse and Creagh, the 7th Armoured Division commander. General Claude Auchinleck took over as commander-in-chief of the Middle East Command, and in September the Western Desert Force was renamed as the 8th Army.
Lieutenant General Alan Cunningham’s 8th Army undertook 'Crusader' from 18 November to 30 December, with the object of relieving Tobruk and capturing the eastern part of Cyrenaica. The 8th Army planned to destroy the Axis armour before committing its infantry but was repulsed several times, culminating in the defeat of the 7th Armoured Division by the Deutsches Afrika Korps at Sidi Rezegh. Rommel ordered the Panzer divisions of what was now the Panzergruppe 'Afrika' to relieve the Axis positions on the Egyptian border but failed to find the main body of the Allied infantry, which had bypassed the fortresses and headed for Tobruk. Rommel pulled his armour back from the frontier toward Tobruk and achieved several tactical successes, which led Auchinleck to replace Cunningham with Lieutenant General Neil Ritchie. The Axis forces then withdrew to the west of Tobruk to the 'Gazala Line' and then back to El Agheila, leaving the Axis garrisons at Bardia and Sollum isolated and which later surrendered. The British suffered 17,700 casualties against 37,400 Axis losses, many of them taken prisoner when the garrisons left behind at Halfaya and Bardia surrendered. Tobruk had been relieved, Cyrenaica recaptured and airfields reoccupied to cover convoys supplying Malta.
Axis supplies from Europe to Libya were moved by road after arrival in North Africa, and after 'Compass' only Tripoli remained as an entrepôt, with a maximum capacity of four troop ships or five cargo ships at once and an unloading capacity of about 45,000 tons per month. The road from Tripoli to Benghazi is 600 miles (970 km) along the Via Balbia, and Benghazi only half the way to Alexandria. The road was prone to flooding, was vulnerable to the Desert Air Force, and the use of desert tracks increased vehicle wear. The Axis advance of 300 miles (480 km) to the Egyptian frontier early in 1941 increased the road transport distance to 1,100 miles (1770 km). Captured in April, Benghazi could handle only coastal shipping and had a capacity of a mere 15,000 tons per month, and was within range of the Desert Air Force’s bombers. About 1,500 tons of supplies per day could be unloaded at Tobruk, but lack of shipping made its capture irrelevant.
A German motorised division needed 350 tons of supplies per day, and the movement of its supplies 300 miles (480 km) required 1,170 2-ton lorry loads. With seven Axis divisions, air force and naval units, 70,000 tons of supplies were needed each month. The Vichy French agreed to Axis use of Bizerte in Tunisia as an arrival port, but this facility was not used until a time late in 1942. From February to May 1941, a surplus of 45,000 tons was delivered. Attacks from Malta had some effect on deliveries, but in May, the worst month for ship losses, 91% of supplies arrived. Lack of transportation in Libya left German supplies in Tripoli and the Italians had only 7,000 lorries for deliveries to their 225,000 men. A record quantity of supplies arrived in June but shortages at the front worsened.
There were fewer Axis attacks on Malta from June, and ship losses increased from 19% in July to 25% in September, when Benghazi was bombed and ships were diverted to Tripoli. Air supply in October made little difference. Deliveries averaged 72,000 tons per month from July to October, but the consumption of between 30 and 50% of fuel deliveries by road transport and a truck unserviceability of 35% reduced deliveries to the front. In November, a five-ship convoy was sunk during 'Crusader' and ground attacks on road convoys stopped daylight movement. Lack of deliveries coupled with the 8th Army’s offensive forced a retreat to El Agheila from 4 December, resulting in crowding on the Via Balbia, where British ambushes destroyed about half of the remaining Axis transport.
Convoys to Tripoli resumed and losses increased, but by 16 December the supply situation had generally eased with the important exception of fuel deliveries. In December, Luftwaffe aircraft in North Africa were limited to one sortie per day. Vichy France sold the Axis 3,600 tons of fuel, U-boats were ordered into the Mediterranean and air reinforcements were diverted from the Eastern Front in December. The Italian navy used warships to carry fuel to Derna and Benghazi and made a maximum effort from 16 to 17 December. Four battleships, three light cruisers and 20 destroyers escorted four ships to Libya. The use of an armada for 20,000 tons of cargo ships, depleted the navy’s fuel reserve and dictated that only one more battleship convoy was possible. Bizerte was canvassed as an entrepôt but it was within range of RAF aircraft from Malta and was another 500 miles (805 km) to the west of Tripoli.
The 8th Army’s advance of 500 miles (805 km) to El Agheila transferred the burden of an over-stretched supply line from the Axis to the British. In January 1942, the British withdrew from the front to reduce their supply burden and to prepare for 'Acrobat', a 1941 plan for a westward advance against Tripolitania. The Vichy French authorities in Tunisia were pressed to allow British troops and then the Anglo-American forces after December 1941, into French North Africa, which made it possible to invade Sicily. The British overestimated Axis losses during 'Crusader' and believed that they faced 35,000 troops rather than the true total of 80,000 men, and the British also misjudged the speed of Axis reinforcement from Europe. The 8th Army expected to be ready by February, well before an Axis attack. The 1st Armoured Division held the area around El Agheila, and from 28 to 29 December was engaged near Agedabia, losing 61 of 90 tanks to the German loss of seven tanks.
The German forces of what was on the verge of being redesignated as the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' began 'Theseus' on 21 January and defeated the 2nd Armoured Brigade in detail. By 23 January, the brigade had lost half of its 150 tanks, against a German loss of 29 out of 100 tanks. Benghazi fell on 28 January and Timimi on 3 February. By 6 February, the British were back to the 'Gazala Line', a few miles to the west of Tobruk, from which the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' had retreated seven weeks earlier. The British suffered 1,309 casualties from 21 January, had 42 tanks knocked out and another 30 damaged or broken down, and lost 40 pieces of artillery. The commander of the XIII Corps, Lieutenant General Alfred Reade Godwin-Austen, resigned over differences with Ritchie, the 8th Army’s commander.
By February the front was at the 'Gazala Line', and during spring both sides prepared for another battle. The British planned 'Buckshot' for June with the object of destroying the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' and recapturing Cyrenaica, but early in May defensive measures on the Egyptian border took priority as an Axis attack became imminent. 'Venezia', otherwise the 'Battle of Gazala' lasted from 26 May to 21 June, and began when the Deutsches Afrika Korps and Italian tanks drove to the south and rounded the flank of the 'Gazala Line, but and were isolated by Free French and other Allied troops at Bir Hakeim, who intercepted Axis supply convoys.
Rommel retreated to a position abutting the British minefields and Ritchie ordered the 'Aberdeen' counterattack for 5 June. To the north, the 32nd Army Tank Brigade lost 50 of 70 tanks. The 7th Armoured Division and the Indian 5th Division on the eastern flank attacked at 02.50 but met with disaster when the British artillery bombardment fell short of the German anti-tank screen. The 22nd Armoured Brigade lost 60 of 156 tanks and turned away, leaving the Indian 9th Brigade stranded. During the afternoon a counterattack by the 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete' and 21st Panzerdivision, together with a 15th Panzerdivision attack on the 'Knightsbridge' box overran the tactical headquarters of the two British divisions and the Indian 9th Division. The Indian 10th Brigade and smaller units were dispersed and command broke down. The Indian 9th Brigade, a reconnaissance regiment and four artillery regiments were lost and the British fled from the 'Gazala Line' on 13 June with only 70 operational tanks left to them.
Gott, now a lieutenant general and commander of the XIII Corps, appointed Major General Hendrik Klopper to the command of the South African 2nd Division for the defence of Tobruk. Along with two South African brigades were the 201st Guards (Motorised) Brigade, the Indian 11th Brigade, the 32nd Army Tank Brigade and the 4th Anti-Aircraft Brigade. Tobruk had been besieged for nine months in 1941, but on this new occasion the Royal Navy could not guarantee the supply of the garrison, while Auchinleck viewed Tobruk as expendable but expected that it could hold out for two months. On 21 June, however, 35,000 men of the 8th Army surrendered to Generale di Corpo d’Armata Enea Navarini, commander of the Italian XXI Corpo d’Armata. Auchinleck relieved Ritchie, assumed personal command of the 8th Army and stopped the Axis advance at El Alamein, 70 miles (110 km) from Alexandria. However, after the '1st Battle of El Alamein' Auchinleck was also dismissed.
Italian plans to invade Malta by sea began during the 2nd Italo-Abyssinian War (3 October 1935/May 1936). An opportunity to capture Malta occurred in April 1941, but the 'Merkur' (20 May/1 June 1941) German airborne seizure of Crete, was conducted first, suffering such losses of parachute troops and transport aircraft that a second operation in 1941 was impossible. Luftwaffe formations and units except Fliegerkorps X were then transferred to the east for the 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR, and by June 1941 the air defences of the island of Malta had recovered. Luftwaffe units returned to the Mediterranean in the spring of 1942 and managed to neutralise the offensive capacity of the island garrison. In April, Hitler and Mussolini agreed to mount 'Herkules' as an Italian-German air and sea invasion of Malta. Two Fliegerkorps with hundreds of Junkers Ju 52/3m transport and glider-tug aircraft, gliders including 24 large Messerschmitt Me 321 Gigant machines and about 200 Regia Aeronautica transport aircraft were assembled for the invasion.
The Italian navy assembled an armada of Marinefährprahme, converted civilian ships, adapted minelayers and 74 smaller craft. German Marinefährprahme, Siebel ferries, Pionierlandungsboote, Sturmboote, large inflatable rafts and the Seeschlange portable landing bridge were contributed by the German navy. Rommel wished to attack, having refitted the force in Libya, to forestall an 8th Army offensive, which was agreed by Hitler and Mussolini, with the proviso that an advance would stop at Tobruk, ready for the invasion of Malta in August. After the success of 'Venezia' and the capture of Tobruk in June, the advance of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' continued: the pursuit of a defeated opponent possessed greater appeal than the hazards of the Malta operation. 'Herkules' was cancelled in favour of 'Aïda', an invasion of Egypt to capture the Suez Canal.
The Panzerarmee 'Afrika' thus advanced into Egypt after the victory at Gazala in pursuit of the 8th Army, which made a defensive stand at Mersa Matruh. The speed of the advance by the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' enabled it to get behind the XIII Corps and the X Corps, but the Axis forces were too weak to prevent the British from escaping: the XIII Corps withdrew on the evening of 27 June but poor communication left the X Corps on its own in the fortress of Mersa Matruh., from which it broke out during the following night. The corps left behind 6,000 men and a great deal of equipment and supplies. The 8th Army continued to retreat to the east, colliding with Axis forces several times. An attempt to regroup at Fuka was cancelled and Auchinleck ordered a 100-mile (160-km) retreat all the way to El Alamein, 62 miles (100 km) to the west of Alexandria. The retreat brought the 8th Army close to its base, which made supply much more efficient and the geographical bottleneck of the Qattara Depression, 40 miles (64 km) to the south, made an Axis outflanking move much more difficult if not actually impossible. By 25 June, the Deutsches Afrika Korps was down to 60 tanks and the Italian XX Corpo d’Armatas had a mere 14 operational tanks. Using supplies captured at Tobruk on the frontier and at Mersa Matruh, the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' reached El Alamein on 30 June. Supply of the Axis forces so far to the east of Gazala became altogether more difficult as most of their supplies still had to come from Tripoli, 1,400 miles (2255 km) away.
An attempt to drive the 8th Army out of the El Alamein position took place in the '1st Battle of El Alamein' between 1 and 27 July. After four days Rommel called off the attempt as a result of the strength of the 8th Army’s defence, depleted Axis supplies and dwindling forces, with German divisions down to something between 1,200 and 1,500 men each. By 5 July, the number of serviceable German tanks had fallen to about 30. After a lull, the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' planned to attack one again, with about 50 German tanks, 2,100 German infantry, 54 Italian tanks and 1,600 Italian troops, but the 8th Army attacked first at Tel el Eisa from 10 to 14 July, which exhausted both sides. The 8th Army began to attack Italian units, located with information from 'Ultra', at Ruweisat Ridge between 14 and 17 July, and from 21 to 23 July, again at Tel El Eisa on 22 July and Miteirya Ridge (22 and 26 July, after which there was another lull. The Germans had suffered about 10,000 casualties; the Italian casualties are unknown but 7,000 Axis prisoners were taken, against 13,250 8th Army casualties.
Lieutenant General B. L. Montgomery took command of the 8th Army on 10 August. Rommel tried to destroy the British and reach Cairo before Allied reinforcements, due in September, made an Axis victory in Africa impossible. The Panzerarmee 'Afrika' was in poor condition and the physique of many of the Germans had declined as a result of the climate and battle exhaustion: 19,000 German troops had been in Africa since March 1941. Reinforcements had brought the four German divisions up to a strength of 90,000 men, which was 17,000 men below establishment, and 12,600 vehicles; only 34,000 of these men were fighting troops. The Panzerarmee 'Afrika', which was redesignated as the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee on 1 October 1942, had accumulated about 200 German and 243 Italian tanks with which to tackle some 700 British tanks.
In the 'Battle of Alam el Halfa', known to the German as the 'Brandung' operation, between 30 August and 5 September, Axis units sought to surround the 8th Army by advancing around its southern flank. The British had been forewarned by 'Ultra' intelligence and left only patrols in the south. The bulk of the British tanks and guns were concentrated at the Alam el Halfa ridge, which blocked the Axis advance 20 miles (32 km) behind the front. The tanks remained on the ridge and fought a static defensive engagement rather than a battle of manoeuvre. Allied aircraft bombed and strafed Axis troops continuously from 30 August to 4 September in an undertaking which destroyed few tanks but pinned them down and denied the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee the opportunity for fast manoeuvring and concentration. Axis attacks on the ridge failed, supplies ran short and Rommel ordered a withdrawal on 2 September. Late on 3 September, single New Zealand and British brigades counterattacked to cut off the Axis retreat, but this 'Beresford' was a costly failure and by 5 September the Axis retreat was complete. The 8th Army had lost 1,750 men and 68 tanks, while the Axis forces lost 2,900 men, 49 tanks, 36 aircraft, 60 pieces of artillery and 400 trucks.
When the 8th Army offensive in the '2nd Battle of El Alamein' began on 23 October, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had 104,000 men, of whom 50,000 were German and of whom only 24,173 were front-line troops. There were 496 Axis tanks, 290 of which were Italian, 500 pieces of artillery and 850 anti-tank guns. The 8th Army had 195,000 men, 1,029 serviceable tanks with another 1,000 under repair, 908 pieces of artillery and 1,451 anti-tank guns. The Allied troops were well fed and in good health, whereas the Axis troops were undernourished and susceptible to illness. Each of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee's vehicles had fuel for only 180 miles (290 km). By 27 October, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee was down to 114 German tanks, and by 2 November had expended most of its ammunition and had left to it only 32 German and 120 Italian tanks. Rommel decided to retreat, but Hitler ordered it to stand fast. On 4 November, the 8th Army broke through Axis defences and Rommel ordered a retreat, abandoning the non-motorised units, particularly Italian formations and units, in the centre and south.
The Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had suffered 37,000 casualties, representing some 30% of the force, and had lost 450 tanks and 1,000 pieces of artillery. The 8th Army had suffered 13,500 casualties, a far smaller proportion of the force, and 500 tanks, of which only 150 had been destroyed, and about 110 guns, most of the last anti-tank guns. The Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had been reduced to about 5,000 men, 20 tanks, 50 field guns and 20 anti-tank guns. Attempts to encircle the Axis forces at Mersa Matruh failed and the bulk of the Deutsches Afrika Korps had escaped by 7 November. The Axis forces retreated along the coast road, but lack of tanks and fuel for a mobile defence of the open southern flank, made a stand at the Halfaya Pass or any other position impossible. Tobruk was retaken by the 8th Army on 13 November and the Axis retreat continued, with Benghazi falling on 20 November, and the captured ports being quickly repaired to supply the British advance.
The Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee retired to the El Agheila defences (Mersa Brega line) but Axis supply and reinforcement priority was given to the forces opposing Lieutenant General Kenneth Anderson’s Allied 1st Army which had landed in French North-West Africa in the 'Torch' operation, leaving the Italians and Germans with no capacity to counterattack. Hitler ordered the Mersa Brega line to be held at all costs, but Rommel favoured a fighting retreat to the Gabès gap in Tunisia, which would increase the supply distance for the 8th Army to 1,500 miles (2415 km). On 24 November, Maresciallo d’Italia Ugo Cavallero, the chief of the Italian general staff, agreed to withdraw 200 miles (320 km) to the west to Buerat, 50 miles (80 km) beyond Sirte, if the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee was attacked by a superior force. The 8th Army reached El Agheila on 15 December and the New Zealand Division was sent to outflank the Mersa Brega line from 14 to 16 December as the 51st Division attacked frontally and the 7th Armoured Division attacked inland at Bir el Auera. The outflanking move failed with the loss of 18 tanks and the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee retreated behind an obstacle course of deep minefields and booby traps, which slowed the pursuit.
El Agheila is 460 miles (740 km) closer to Tripoli than the Egyptian frontier. The arrival of the second Italian battleship convoy on 6 January 1942 and the discovery of 13,000 tons of fuel at Tripoli eased the Axis supply crisis, despite the delivery of only 50,000 tons of supplies in January. The Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee now had a considerably shorter supply line and the room to manoeuvre against an opponent who now had the burden of an over-extended supply line. The arrival of Luftflotte II in Sicily had also restored Axis air superiority in the region. Rommel asked for another 8,000 trucks, but this request was rejected and Rommel was warned that an advance would cause another supply crisis. On 29 January, the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee recaptured Benghazi and on the following day ammunition supply to the front broke down. By 13 February Rommel had agreed to halt at Gazala, 900 miles (1450 km) from Tripoli.
Until May, monthly deliveries averaged 60,000 tons, less than the smaller Axis force had received from June to October 1941 but sufficient for an offensive. The 900-mile (1450-km) advance to Gazala succeeded because Benghazi was open, reducing the transport distance for about one-third of the supplies of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' to 280 miles (450 km). The Italians tried to restrain Rommel by advocating unsuccessfully for the capture of Malta, which would have led to the postponement of another offensive in Africa until the autumn, but agreed to an attack on Tobruk late in May. An advance would stop at the Egyptian frontier, another 150 miles (240 km) to the east and the Luftwaffe would redeploy for 'Herkules'. The capture of Malta would not alter the constraints of port capacity and distance, and protection of convoys and a large port close to the front would still be prerequisites for victory.
The capture of Alexandria would have made Malta irrelevant, but a defensive strategy would be needed while Benghazi was extended, supplies accumulated and substantial reinforcements brought to Libya. More troops would increase the demand for supplies, which would exceed the capacities of Tripoli and Benghazi and the transport needed to move them. On 26 May the 'Battle of Gazala' had started: Tobruk was captured intact on 22 June and shipping losses barely increased. Deliveries to Libya fell from 150,000 to 32,000 tons as a result of a fuel shortage in Italy, and the supplies were unloaded at Tripoli, which made the position of the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' untenable. 'Herkules' was postponed, but the capture of 2,000 vehicles, 5,000 tons of supplies and 1,400 tons of fuel at Tobruk enabled the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' to advance another 400 mi (640 km) by 4 July, when lack of supplies, exhaustion and the rally of the 8th Army ended the advance.
Tobruk could accept only 20,000 tons of supplies per month and was within Deseret Air Force bomber range ,and the railway could carry only 300 tons per day. Small deliveries could be made to Tobruk, Bardia and Mersa Matruh or be landed at Tripoli and Benghazi, 1,300 and 800 miles (2090 and 1290 km) away. Ship losses in August rose by 400% and deliveries fell by half to 51,000 tons. Supplies were diverted back to Tripoli and the 'Battle of Alam el Halfa' consumed 10,000 tons of fuel. A retreat from El Alamein was forbidden by Hitler and deliveries fell as far fewer ships were sent from Italy. Shipbuilding, repairs and German replacement ships, had limited the net Italian loss of merchant ships to 23% since 1940. On the eve of the '2nd Battle of El Alamein', the railway from Tobruk was flooded and 10,000 tons of supplies were stranded, leaving the Panzerarmee 'Afrika' with only 10% of the fuel it required.
Rommel planned to defend the Gabes gap in Tunisia, to the east of the French pre-war 'Ligne Mareth' defences by holding the port of Buerat, while Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s Heeresgruppe 'Afrika', already in Tunisia, confronted the 1st Army, which contained the US II Corps and French troops. The front was 400 miles (640 km) from Tobruk and with its consequent supply difficulties the 8th Army was unable to use all its strength. Buerat was not strongly defended and, despite intelligence on the state of the Axis forces, Montgomery paused until 16 January 1943, when the 8th Army had a 4/1 superiority in infantry and a 7.5/1 superiority in armour. Bombing began on 12 January and the XXX Corps attacked on 15 January, picking its way along the coast road through minefields, demolitions and booby traps. The New Zealand 2nd Division and the British 7th Armoured Division swung inland via Tarhuna, supplied by the Royal Army Service Corps and the New Zealand Army Service Corps. The 8th Army needed to capture the port quickly to avoid a supply shortage. Rommel withdrew from Buerat on 15 January, retreated from Tripoli on the night of 22/23 January after destroying the port, and then conducted a delaying action into Tunisia. The 7th Armoured Division entered Tripoli on 23 January; the last elements of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee reached the 'Ligne Mareth', another 200 miles (320 km) to the west, on 15 February, as Long Range Desert Group patrols surveyed the defences.
The main British attack was made along the coast road by the 51st Division and an armoured brigade as the 7th Armoured Division advanced via Tarhuna, Castel Benito and Tripoli. The 90th leichte Division fought delaying actions along the road, which exacerbated the Allied transport difficulties. From 20 to 21 January, the 90th leichte Division made a stand at Corradini, having made 109 craters in the road from Buerat to Homs. The vanguard of the 7th Armoured Division reached the vicinity of Aziza on 21 January and next day the 51st Division reached Castel Verde. A race developed, and the Germans retired from Tripoli during the night. The 11th Hussars were the first into Tripoli, 675 miles (1085 km) to the west of Benghazi, on the morning of 23 January. Five hours later, a naval base party arrived and surveyed the wreckage of the port. On 26 January, five ships anchored outside the port and began to unload via lighters, and on 30 January 3,000 tons of stores were landed. In March the 8th Army entered Tunisia and on 9 March, Rommel returned to Germany to communicate to Hitler the realities of conditions in North Africa. Rommel failed to persuade Hitler to allow the Axis forces to be withdrawn and was not allowed to return to Africa, ostensibly on health grounds.
Rommel claimed that if the supplies and equipment, sent to Tunisia late in 1942 and early in 1943, had been despatched at an earlier date, the Axis would have won the 'Campaign in the Western Desert'. This is debatable, for it was only after the German occupation of southern France after 'Torch' that French merchant ships and Toulon became available for the despatch of supplies and Bizerte for the receipt of these supplies. The extra distance from Bizerte to the Egyptian border would also have negated the benefit of using a larger port. Axis supply had always been determined by the small size of the ports in Libya, a constraint that could not be overcome, and attacks on Axis shipping had compounded already chronic supply difficulties. With the main strength of the German army committed on the Eastern Front, there was never sufficient road transport available for the Deutsches Afrika Korps and the Panzerarmee 'Afrika', despite the relatively lavish scale of transport compared to other fronts.
The cancelled attack on Malta in the summer of 1942 had less influence on events than the small size of Tobruk harbour and its vulnerability to air attack. Only a railway, similar to the one built by the British, could have alleviated Axis supply difficulties, but lack of time and resources made it impossible to build one. The influence of Axis ship losses on the defeats inflicted on the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee late in 1942 has been exaggerated, because lack of fuel was caused by the chronic difficulty of transporting goods overland, rather than lack of deliveries from Europe. During the '2nd Battle of El Alamein', one-third of the fuel destined for the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee was stranded at Benghazi. Rommel wrote that Axis supply difficulties, relative to those of the British, determined the course of the military campaign and were a constraint that was insoluble.
On the other side of the wire, Montgomery has been criticised for failing to trap the Axis armies and bring them to a decisive battle in Libya. His tactics have been seen as too cautious and too slow as he knew from 'Ultra' and other intelligence sources of the Axis forces' wholly tenuous supply situation. However, it has also been posited that the defensive capabilities of the Deutsches Afrika Korps in particular and British apprehensions of another defeat and retreat, would have constrained the freedom of action of any commander. Warfare in the desert has been described as a 'quarter-master’s nightmare' as a result of the conditions of desert warfare and the supply difficulties. Montgomery emphasised balance and refrained from attacks until the 8th Army was ready, and this army’s morale greatly improved under his command.
The Axis forces retreated through Libya into Tunisia and fought the 'Campaign for Tunisia', eventually to be trapped between the Anglo-American forces of the 1st Army to the west and the 8th Army to the east.